Justice League: NOT Just Whatever It Means To You
August 11, 2008
So everyone – really, only those who care to look and offer an opinion – is a-twitter about Natalie Barnes’ painting “Justice League”, which won a silver medal (is that equivalent to second prize?) in this year’s JCDC Visual Arts competition. As shown below, the painting depicts [a handful of] our national dons as wannabe superheroes, who set out in their pretty european suits to rescue the masses from the plagues and various disasters that befall us.
What I do love is that the work is drawing in people to see this painting, and others, that are on view at the National Gallery. The painting won the “Viewers Vote” apparently. What I don’t know and can’t discern is the tenor of the conversations about the painting.
If you used to read comic books, you will recognize the depiction as a variation on the Fantastic Four. Natalie Barnes’s piece is certainly part of a time-honoured tradition among politically-astute artists and activists in the U.S. who often use these comic-book caricatures to critique the amateurish and juvenile attitudes among reform-minded politicians who love to represent themselves – and often treated – as caped crusaders who are taking on the Evil Hordes and detritus of modernity: prostitutes, gamblers, progressive sex educators, immigrants, homosexuals, poor people, liberals, intellectuals, people of color, human rights and anti-war activists et al.
Ms. Barnes’s work is reminiscent of one other Jamaican artist, the photographer Renee Cox’s superhero series, where she imagines herself as the one doing the saving. Then there’s Dulce Pinzon’s work that is a scathing critique of the exploitation of immigrants in the US. And then, there may be some interesting comparisons to draw with the latest Batman flick over which there has been too much excitement. I haven’t seen it (my favourite superheroes are not men), and don’t plan to. But if you did see it, tell us what you think.
Read in that light (rather than our typical insular, suicide-inducing practices) Ms. Barnes’s painting is certainly a hilarious and yet serious, timely, dead-on critique of the ways that our own home-grown politicians love to see themselves as our saviours, and how Jamaicans even at 46+ years, are constantly looking to be saved by someone on high. If its not Jesus, then it might as well be the J-Team who imagine themselves (in a characteristically limited way) as fictional characters invented in the US and in outfits probably made in China. The original transnational poppyshows!
This is definitely an image that scholars and artist-practitioners will look to in the future. I can’t wait for her to produce posters and giclee prints from this painting. I can see a whole cottage industry emerging from these: calendars, book covers, t-shirts, you name it. Small Axe will probably get first dibs.
From reading the coverage though – which is different from what is actually happening on the ground, as it were – its funny how ideas circulate and are given form here through the lenses of the media reportage.
Based on how the painting and its reception is being framed, it’s not clear to me that many folks get the critique being offered by the work. The reports, lie much of the narrow debates about what constitutes “art” in Jamaica, are tending to situate Barnes’ piece as some laudable form of ‘high art’, as if this concept has never been executed anywhere else before.
So, in true colonial fashion, The Royal Court led by His Highness Bruce Golding summons a Special Viewing of “That Painting That Has Been Given the Title Justice League by the One Artist a Natalie Barnes of Kingston Jamaica.” (By the way, why is this the first time that Golding is seeing the work? Isn’t it part of his responsibility to view [some of] the works on display at the national competitions??) And they look closely to evaluate just how well the artist is trained in her craft, and if she is truly an Artist by how well she is able to capture the true likeness of the said crusaders, and want to know whether she really wants to say that they are indeed true superheroes of our time, or is she being just a bit facetious to imagine that they are like such superheroes, who we know are just figments of somebody’s imagination from far away. Poppyshows indeed.
And the one Ms. Barnes, even after “showing her hand” in the Gleaner’s, August 3 piece, clearly sees how she is about to be propelled into the land of the famous and wealthy artists who have been given the official blessing of the State and the tastemakers, provided that she does not alienate or piss them off or give a hint that her intentions are anything else but honourable.
So, in today’s article in the Gleaner, she with her cunny self does a 180, and totally shies away from claiming her work for what it is – an incredibly subversive piece that shows how the emperor has no clothes. That is, our mout-a-massy so-called justice-doers are at their core a fantasy that was created and given substance in someone else’s (racial) imagination, and which we have willingly co-opted without thought. Instead, Ms. Barnes resorts to the sacharrinely delivered coy “whatever it means to you” gesture when asked what she was thinking when she created this piece. You know, Ms. Barnes, it would be nice if you used these opportunities to say what you have to say rather than resorting to this cloak-and-dagger crap. I guess she too is enamoured of the PM giving her attention. She’s probably hoping he’ll buy it.
[Oh god, please do not let this work fall into the hands of one of those folks. Me a beg yuh!]
If Ms. Barnes keeps up this performance, she will certainly achieve her intentions, which is to make everyone like her enough to pay her and give her a studio somewhere so she can create more art that can be consumed by the public. But then, there is the chance that she will probably become more like the company she will keeping, and I don’t know if that will bode well for her work in the future. Just look at Laura Facey-Cooper for a good example of how not to be as an artist. Access to the master’s tools is really not enough to initiate the kind of critical introspection and action that Ms. Barnes is calling for in her more revelatory moments. I think she gets that. I hope she remembers that.
Of course, there’s much more to be said about this painting and the kinds of issues it raises for how Jamaican artists see themselves in relation to the society and the world, and for how we relate to art in our daily struggle for dignity and a decent quality of life. Your turn….